September is National Preparedness Month, bringing home the importance of being ready now and throughout the year for the types of emergencies that can happen where we live, work and raise our families. Whether it's a natural disaster like a hurricane or major snowstorm, a localized incident such as a chemical spill or train derailment, a widespread utility outage, a major flu epidemic or, at the far end of the spectrum, an act of terror, now is the time to actively prepare for the unexpected.

It's not a difficult or a major time-consuming task. Spending just a few hours over one or two days, you can easily assemble the two major components of your personal or family preparedness plan: an emergency supplies kit and a family communications guide.

Emergency Supplies Kit

A disaster supplies kit is simply a collection of basic items your household may need in the event of an emergency. When the emergency strikes, you probably won't have time to shop for what you need, so assemble your kit well in advance. In case you have to evacuate at a moment's notice, consider having at least two kits, one full kit at home and a smaller portable kit in your workplace or vehicle.

The rule of thumb is to have enough of your own food, water and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours. Though local public safety personnel will be on the scene immediately, they cannot reach everyone immediately; you could get help in hours or it might take days. Basic services such as electricity, gas, water, sewage treatment and telephones may be cut off for days or even a week, or longer. Your supplies kit should contain items to help you manage during these outages:


• Bottled Water: one gallon per person per day for drinking and sanitation

• Non-Perishable Food: at least a three-day supply, including canned (and a manual can opener)

• Clothing: at least one complete change per person, including colder-weather items and sturdy shoes.

• Bedding: sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person.

• Sanitation: garbage bags for personal waste, moist towelettes, feminine supplies

• First Aid: a basic store-bought kit and guidebook

• Unique Family Needs: daily prescription medications, infant formula or diapers

• Important Documents: in a waterproof container

• Radio Communication: battery-powered radio and extra batteries

• Lighting: flashlight and extra batteries

• Mess Kits: paper cups, plates and plastic utensils, paper towels

• For Kids: books, games, puzzles, pencils and paper and other activities

• For Pets: food and extra water

• Matches: in a waterproof container

• In Case of Airborne Contaminants: mask or cotton t-shirt to help filter air, plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place

• Cell Phone Charger

• Fire Extinguisher

• Whistle to Signal for Help

• Local Maps

Family Communications Guide

Just as you should plan for what to do in the event of a fire in your home, it is wise to develop and discuss a basic communications plan in case of externally-caused emergencies. Your family may not be together when an emergency hits, so plan how you will contact one another and review what you will do in different situations. Consider a plan where each family member calls or emails the same relative or friend. Include out-of-town contacts on your list as they may be in a better position to communicate among family members if separated.

Be sure each person knows the phone number and has coins or a prepaid phone card to call the emergency contact. You may have trouble getting through, or the phone system may be down altogether, but be patient. Depending on the nature of the emergency, the first important decision is whether you stay put or evacuate. You should understand and plan for both possibilities. Use common sense to determine if there is immediate danger. Watch television (if power is still on) and listen to your battery-powered radio for official instructions as they become available.

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Lucy Ann Britton, RN, BS, is the Emergency Management Director for Berkshire Medical Center